For the elderly, Alzheimer’s is not the only problem



One reason why Alzheimer’s disease is so difficult to treat, and sometimes even to identify, is that its symptoms can be caused by other diseases. Earlier I mentioned that, besides Alzheimer’s, my grandmother also had macular degeneration – she was losing her vision in her 60s, and was legally blind for thirty years. Sensory deprivation can cause delusions in itself. People with macular degeneration can hallucinate. Perhaps the mind, struggling to make sense of the fog it sees, gets a little too creative.

Alzheimer’s is primarily a disease of the old, and the older you are, the more likely you are to have it. There are hundreds of thousands of exceptions, in both directions. Kris, who writes Dealing with Alzheimer’s, is one of hundreds of thousands of people under 65 who have early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. 82-year-old blogger Millie Garfield, who writes My Mom’s Blog, has a better memory than I do. The ageless project lists ten bloggers over 75.

But the fact remains that Alzheimer’s disease affects more than half of all people over 85, according to the Mayo Clinic.

But when you put it that way, the question is: what else affects most people over 85? What else affects how they think and how they are treated?

  • Older people move slower. If you move slowly, people assume you think slowly. If you talk slowly, as many older Southerners were trained to do, people become convinced that you think slowly.
  • Older people get less respect. If people believe that you think slowly, they won’t ask you any mentally stimulating questions. And they certainly won’t listen to hear if you have any mentally stimulating answers. It takes patience to walk and talk with a slower person. Even I have trouble with that, after living for years with my grandmother.
  • Older people can’t hear or see as well as young people. As my grandmother’s doctor explained, sensory deprivation causes mental deterioration. That’s one reason why endless solitary confinement is so cruel, and why people who have been institutionalized for years have trouble recovering in their minds.
  • Older people have less stimulation. They play few video games. You and I have millions of things to think about – maybe too many things – because they’re bombarding our eyes and ears dozens of times a minute (hundreds of times a minute if you’re living la vida electronica). But when you can’t see or hear, you don’t have much to think about.
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